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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Uta's Daneesha Provo shoots during game against Arizona State in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017.
It’s just a different mentality. I’m not really forcing anything, just letting the game come to me. It’s letting me be more free and confident. —Utah guard Daneesha Provo

SALT LAKE CITY — In her freshman year at Clemson, Daneesha Provo found herself adrift in a kind of sadness she’d never experienced.

Just before the basketball team began conference play, she decided she needed to go home to Nova Scotia, Canada. She knew how it would look for a college freshman to leave midway through the season. But she also knew she couldn’t bring herself to follow the mantra most athletes ascribe to when faced with challenges: tough it out.

“I called my dad right after Christmas break,” said the junior guard, as she prepared to watch film with her Utah teammates on Monday. “I told him I was really depressed, that I’m not happy. I can’t just tough through it. He didn’t believe me at first. And then I started crying. …The next day he drove all the way down (to South Carolina) from Canada. He’d never seen me like that before. It wasn’t homesickness.”

Provo was used to being on her own. She enrolled in a boarding school in Connecticut at age 14 and stayed, even after the coach who recruited her left.

“My dad thought it would be a better education,” she said of her high school experience at Kent. “And I wanted to try and get better exposure for basketball. I’d always wanted to play in the NCAA.” A scholarship offer from Clemson seemed to be the fairytale ending to her childhood dream of playing collegiate basketball in the U.S. But it only took a few weeks for Provo to realize that she’d made a grave mistake.

“It was a big shock,” she said of living in the south. “I wasn’t expecting it. I thought it would be the same (as Connecticut). It was just a really bad situation for me.”

Even basketball, which has always helped her manage stress and difficulties, became something she dreaded. So she quit.

“I just felt like I’d made a lot of people look bad, in a sense,” Provo said. “But I was so depressed that I couldn’t really care what other people thought.”

It took about a month to get her release from Clemson, which meant she couldn’t enroll in another university. That turned out to be a blessing, she said, as she decided she needed to find her bearings again before looking at other programs. She worked out and played with the Canadian National team’s development program. That’s how she was connected with Utah, a school that has been home to a series of Canadian players who’ve excelled collegiately, professionally, and for the Canadian National team.

“Utah was my last visit,” she said. “I wasn’t sure about it because it was so far away, and my family wouldn’t be able to come to my games. But once I got out here, I loved it. The people, having (Emily) Potter and Paige (Crozon), and Kim (Smith) and the Plouffes coming here in the summer and working, having that guidance for Utah and the National team, having that connection really made a big difference. It felt more like family I think.”

That doesn’t mean her transition to playing for Utah has been without challenges.

“You’re always going to have ups and downs,” she said. “The first year back, not being able to play in games was tough. I lost confidence. But (the coaches) still believed in me all summer, worked out with me a lot, and that helped me start to have that faith back in me.”

Last year she played in all of Utah’s 31 games, averaging 3.5 points and two rebounds in about 12 minutes per game. This year, however, Provo has made it impossible to ignore her.

Despite coming off the bench until starter Tori Williams went down with an ankle injury a week and a half ago, Provo leads the team in scoring with 14.3 points per game. Only point guard Erika Bean is averaging more minutes than Provo, who also leads the team in 3-pointers with 29. In Utah’s four conference games, Provo has played some of her best basketball, and she’s averaging 21 points per game in those contests, while leading all players with minutes played at 32.8. That makes her the second-leading scorer in the Pac-12 through four games.

A number of things have contributed to Provo’s transformation. First, she said she feels at home at Utah and in Salt Lake City. While she put in a lot of extra work in the gym during the summer, she also reconnected with her faith and began meditating.

“A lot of people think it’s weird for me, but I meditate every day,” she said a bit sheepishly. “I’ve been doing it since the summer, and it’s made a huge difference. I’ve been able to do it before games, before I go to bed, and I’m sleeping well, I’m eating right, and everything is just falling into place.”

She also began attending Faith Temple on a regular basis.

“I’m also going to church more often,” she said. “I was going Friday and Sundays, but because of games, now I just go during the week. That helps me not be homesick as much. It kind of makes me feel connected to God, connected to my family, and it helps me deal with things I can’t control.”

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said Provo’s work during the offseason has helped her evolve into the player she’s always had the physical skill to be.

“She put in a ton of work, really worked her tail off,” Roberts said. “She’s a specimen physically, and she worked on her skills. I always tell players, ‘There is no light switch, ‘Oh, I’m going to get confident today.’ The only way you get confident is you put in the work. The only way to have results is to put in the work. It’s a cycle. The only way you break into that confidence and success, confidence and success is by putting in the work when no one is watching.”

Roberts said this year’s team and system also favor Provo’s strengths.

“She’s just has a little more understanding and comfort, which leads to confidence, in where she can be effective,” Roberts said.

Provo started while Williams was out, but Roberts said this team really shouldn’t worry about who starts and who doesn’t.

“The starting thing, I try to de-emphasize that as much as possible,” Roberts said. “I was a player; I know it’s a big deal. But from where I sit, it really isn’t. It’s about winning. …Either way, her role doesn’t change. She is going to play a lot and we need her to do what she’s been doing.” Provo acknowledged she’d like to start, but that is not what matters most to her.

“Not anymore,” she said of whether starting matters. “It did at first. For me, no, it’s like being there for my teammates and doing what I can to get wins. Obviously people think that starters are normally the best five players, but then, it kind of depends. Maybe you need a spark off the bench. I would love to start and continue starting, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. So if it’s me coming off the bench, that’s great. If it’s me starting, that’s fine.”

While Provo finds confidence in her own hard work and her spiritual and emotional commitments, she said the faith her teammates and coaches have in her have also played a vital role in her reaching her potential.

“They believed in me all summer,” she said. “The coaches worked out with me a lot when I was losing confidence. They started to have faith in me, and that helped me. …For me it’s really rewarding (to have success) and coming off of last year, it feels like night and day. It’s just a different mentality. I’m not really forcing anything, just letting the game come to me. It’s letting me be more free and confident.”